On a visit to the fish camp on Cape Lookout, I heard a fisherman mention an animal called a nutria. What is a nutria?

July 2007

Larger than a muskrat, but smaller than a beaver, nutria live in marshes, swamps, ponds, lakes and coastal rivers.  (Photo by Emmett Westbrook)

Larger than a muskrat, but smaller than a beaver, nutria live in marshes, swamps, ponds, lakes and coastal rivers. (Photo by Emmett Westbrook)

Nutrias (Myocastor coypus) are semi-aquatic rodents that look like a cross between a muskrat and a beaver. They inhabit coastal and aquatic areas in large numbers, but because they are primarily nocturnal they are seldom seen.

These large animals have long, thin, round tails, webbed feet and very large, orange, curved front teeth. They move easily through water, using their tail as a rudder.

Averaging 15 to 20 pounds, nutrias are strictly vegetarian and have voracious appetites. They feed on roots and stems of plants and cause erosion problems because their feeding habits destroy plants. This is particularly a problem in coastal areas where plants help hold sandy soil and stabilize dunes.

Native to South America, the rodents were brought to Louisiana in the 1930s to establish a fur trade, but their pelts proved too coarse to be commercially viable. Some escaped and others were released into the wild, where they found the temperate southern climate much to their liking. They began to reproduce rapidly, as many as two or more litters per year, with an average of five young per litter. They first appeared in North Carolina in 1941.

07-072Today, nutria can be found along the East Coast from Maryland to Florida and in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. They also inhabit the Great Lakes regions and appear as far as Montana, Washington and Oregon. In some areas, they have moved inland to coastal rivers and are believed to be most numerous in marshes of Louisiana and Oregon.

Catching a glimpse of a nutria is most likely at dawn or dusk. They are easily tracked in sand by following the unmistakable long, thin line made by their tail.